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California National Parks

About the California National Parks

California national parks are among the most visited, most scenic, and most easily accessible in all the world.

From the heights of the Sequoia to the depths of Death Valley, from the grandeur of mighty Yosemite to the intimacy of Redwood, California’s national parks have something for everyone.

Given the countless hours we’ve spent in these parks we’ve finally taken it upon ourselves to rank them from best to worst (how subjective!).

Without further ado, I give you the best national parks in California.

Why Listen to Us About the California Parks?

You should probably know that we didn’t just make this list up out of thin air. We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.

We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.

Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.

the pattiz brothers more than just parks
Will (left) and Jim (right) of More Than Just Parks

We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers.

Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.

California National Parks Ranking Criteria

Now, you might ask how on earth we ranked California’s national parks from best to worst. We ranked all of the national parks based on a variety of factors including accessibility, recreational opportunities, crowd sizes, park amenities, and of course, scenic beauty. Have a look at the breakdown below:

  • Accessibility – Is this national park easy to access? We analyzed vehicle access, transportation options, proximity to major airports, lodging and accommodations, conveniences, and other signs of civilization.
  • Recreation – Recreation opportunities found in the park like hiking, biking, boating, climbing, etc.
  • Crowds – How crowded is this national park? We considered traffic, crowded overlooks & trails, limited campsite availability, lines, etc.
  • Amenities – Developed amenities in the park like visitors centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, lodges, etc.
  • Scenery – The scenic beauty of the park. Purely subjective of course, but has to be taken into account.

Things to Know Before You Visit the California National Parks

Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.

Sunscreen: Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which we never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: We carry around an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us, especially in the redwoods, as mosquitoes can be a bit crazy in the parks.

Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check before taking your pooch on your trip to the park!

Best California National Parks

us national parks ranked, yosemite, california
Yosemite National Park | Best California National Parks

1. Yosemite National Park

Location: Eastern California

Score: 43

  • Accessibility – 9.5/10
  • Recreation – 10/10
  • Crowds – 3.5/10
  • Amenities – 10/10
  • Scenery – 10/10

About Yosemite

Yosemite National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful place with spectacular wonders that defy belief. But alas, it’s the 21st century and John Muir’s “grandest of all temples of nature” is bursting at the seams with tourists in search of their latest social media trophy.

But at the end of the day it’s still Yosemite National Park. Once there you’ll realize just why the park is one of the most popular in the US.

Despite the summer crowds, the valley and the park is truly one of the natural wonders of the world.

The immense beauty found here is overwhelming and has a tendency to make one feel small in the most humbling way. We recommend visiting in the off-season for the best experience.

Yosemite Highlights

A View of Yosemite Valley | California National Parks

Yosemite Valley is one of the most breathtaking and iconic natural destinations in the world. John Muir had this to say about it “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

Glacier Point is another incredibly scenic viewpoint of Yosemite Valley and one of the most heavily photographed spots in the park.

Mariposa Grove is the largest grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park with several hundred ancient trees on display.

Where to Stay at Yosemite

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Redwood National Park | Best California National Parks

2. Redwood National Park

Location: Northern California

Score: 43

  • Accessibility – 7/10
  • Recreation – 8/10
  • Crowds – 7/10
  • Amenities – 10/10
  • Scenery – 9/10

About Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park’s misty forests, wild coastline, pristine streams, and valleys teeming with wildlife are one of the best kept “secrets” in the national park system. 40 scenic miles of wild and rugged coastline where whales swim and elk roam are enough to take your breath away.

Waterfalls and clear blue streams rush against a backdrop of vivid green ferns. The tallest trees in the world soar to unimaginable heights all around you and command your awed gaze. Yes, here in Redwood National Park you’ll be forgiven if you start to think you’re another planet, like say Endor.

RELATED: An Epic Guide Redwood National Park (Photos + Video)

Redwood Video

WATCH: We made a brief 4 minute video about Redwood National Park.

Redwood Highlights

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Stout Grove Redwood National Park | California National Parks

Stout Grove is one of the most magnificent and highly photographed groves of old-growth Redwoods in Redwood National Park. Located in Jedediah Smith Redwoods North of Crescent City, the Stout Grove features a relatively small grove of giant, 300ft tall redwoods.

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Jedediah Smith Redwoods | California National Parks

Jedediah Smith Redwoods Named for the famous mountain man, Jedediah Smith State Park is often many visitors first experience in Redwood National Park. This area is located on the stunning Wild & Scenic Smith River on the north side of the park near Crescent City.

lady bird johnson grove redwood national park
Lady Bird Johnson Grove | California National Parks

Lady Bird Johnson Grove is one of the most spectacular groves of ancient, old-growth Redwoods in the world. This grove is located near the town of Orick at about 1,000ft above sea level and is one of the most popular hikes in the park.

Where to Stay at Redwood

Redwood National Park Guide

Interested in learning more about Redwood National Park? We made a beautiful and easy to use guide with helpful tips, photos, video, & more! Click here for the guide.

sequioa national park california
Sequoia National Park | National Parks California

3. Sequoia National Park

Location: Eastern California

Score: 43

  • Accessibility – 9/10
  • Recreation – 8.5/10
  • Crowds – 7.5/10
  • Amenities – 8.5/10
  • Scenery – 9/10

About California’s Sequoia National Park

The beauty of the ancient Sequoia trees found in Sequoia National Park defy any attempt to describe them as John Muir so aptly wrote, “The Big Tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece, and, so far as I know, the greatest of living things. No description can give any adequate idea of their singular majesty, much less their beauty. ” 

Here, amongst groves of the largest trees in the world, one can’t possibly avoid being humbled and awed by the power of of nature. In addition to it’s namesake trees, the park has abundant amenities and outside of peak summer crowding isn’t too bad. We highly recommend adding this national park to your list.

Sequoia Highlights

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia | California National Parks

The General Sherman Tree is the largest tree in the world and for that reason alone is a must-see. The tree is 275 feet tall, around 2,200 years old and weighs more than 2.5 million pounds!

The Congress Trail is our favorite trail in the park filled with stunning groves of ancient Sequoias. For an especially beautiful trip, visit this trail in winter with snowshoes.

big trees trail sequoia national park california
Big Trees Trail Sequoia | California National Parks

The Big Trees Trail is another favorite trail in the park which loops around a large meadow and gives visitors a grand view of the giant sequoias.

Where to Stay at Sequoia

death valley national park california

4. Death Valley National Park

Location: Southeastern California

Score: 39

  • Accessibility – 6/10
  • Recreation – 9.5/10
  • Crowds – 8/10
  • Amenities – 7/10
  • Scenery – 8.5/10

About Death Valley National Park

The largest park in the contiguous United States at over 1.6 million acres, Death Valley embodies every aspect of epic. Star Wars landscapes fill the mind with wonder as superlatives are the name of the game here.

Death Valley features the lowest point in North America, the hottest ever recorded air temperature on the planet, and the driest place in the United States.

Despite the morbid name Death Valley has an abundance of life and incredible sights. So long as you don’t visit during the summer when temperatures can soar into the 130s you’re bound to have a great time here.

Death Valley Video

WATCH: We made a brief 4 minute video about Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley Highlights

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Eureka Dunes | California National Parks Ranked

Eureka Dunes Located in the remote Eureka Valley and situated at 3000ft elevation, Eureka Dunes is the most stunning dune field (we think) of the five in Death Valley National Park. These dunes are the tallest in California and perhaps the tallest in North America.

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Badwater Basin, Death Valley | Best California National Parks

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282ft below sea level. This salty wonderland features dazzling geometric shapes and record temperatures in the Summer.

zabriskie point best things to do death valley national park, california
Zabriskie Point Death Valley | California National Parks

Zabriskie Point is one of the most iconic locations in all of Death Valley National Park and perhaps the park’s best place in to watch a sunrise. This popular location features panoramic views of Death Valley and stunning rock formations.

Where to Stay at Death Valley

Death Valley National Park Guide

Interested in learning more about Death Valley National Park? We made a beautiful and easy to use guide with helpful tips, photos, video, & more! Click here for the guide.

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Joshua Tree National Park | Best California National Parks

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Score: 37

Location: Southern California

  • Accessibility – 8/10
  • Recreation – 8/10
  • Crowds – 7/10
  • Amenities – 7/10
  • Scenery – 7/10

About Joshua Tree National Park

Oh Joshua Tree. Has any park been more idolized by musicians and pop-culture? What was once thought of as an interesting other-worldly filming location for old Hollywood television productions like Star Trek, is now every budding artist’s pilgrimage for photo shoots and experimental…well, anyway. 

Alas, Joshua Tree has not lost any of its beauty, and despite its crowds still provides plenty of space to explore it’s magical desert landscapes.

Joshua Tree Video

WATCH: We made a brief 4 minute video about Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Highlights

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Wall Street Mill, Joshua Tree | California National Parks

Wall Street Mill is an abandoned gold mill site built in 1933 the ruins of which are located in Joshua Tree National Park. The mill was built by Bill Keys, whose handy work can be seen in various other sections of the park including Keys Ranch.

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Arch Rock, Joshua Tree | California National Parks

Arch Rock is a roughly 30ft natural arch located near the White Tank Campground. The hike to the arch leads visitors through a labyrinth of cool rock formations along the way.

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Skull Rock Sunset, Joshua Tree | California National Parks

Skull Rock is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a really cool looking skull-shaped rock that’s actually located right off the main road in Joshua Tree National Park.

Where to Stay at Joshua Tree

general grant tree kings canyon national park california
General Grant Tree Kings Canyon National Park | California National Parks

6. Kings Canyon National Park

Location: Eastern California

Score: 37

  • Accessibility – 5.5/10
  • Recreation – 10/10
  • Crowds – 6.5/10
  • Amenities – 7/10
  • Scenery – 8/10

About Kings Canyon National Park

Located directly adjacent to Sequoia National Park and featuring similar scenery (the second largest tree on the planet lives here) and even a similar lodge, this is a park to behold. The only downside here is accessibility, burned areas, crowds, and the sequoia groves here aren’t quite as gorgeous as those you’ll find down the road at Sequoia. Call it national park snobbery, spoiled with a wealth of natural splendor, but here we are.

Kings Canyon Highlights

General Grant Tree Clocking in at the second largest tree on the planet, the General Grant Tree is a sight to behold.

Grant Grove The Grant Grove is home to the General Grant Tree along with many other massive sequoias sure to impress any visitor to Kings Canyon.

Where to Stay at Kings Canyon

Manzanita Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park California
Lassen Volcanic National Park | Best California National Parks

7. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Location: Northern California

Score: 35.5

  • Accessibility – 6/10
  • Recreation – 7.5/10
  • Crowds – 7/10
  • Amenities – 7/10
  • Scenery – 8/10

About Lassen Volcanic

We liken Lassen to a Yosemite meets Yellowstone. Situated just below the mighty volcanic Cascade Range and at the northern tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this park features some otherworldly scenery. Thermal works here in an area known as Bumpass Hell rival some of those you can find in Yellowstone. 

Throw in some stunning alpine lakes, sugar pine forests, and purple mountain majesty and you’ve got a general feeling for the place. The catch here is proximity to a major airport and other popular destinations. It’s a bit out there.

Lassen Volcanic Highlights

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Bumpass Hell (courtesy Alice Marchuk) | California National Parks

Bumpass Hell is an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of some of the thermal areas found in Yellowstone National Park. Boardwalks here wind through sulfurous, boiling, steaming pools.

Manzanita Lake is a one of Northern California’s most beautiful lakes complete with a volcanic mountain view of Lassen Peak and Chaos Crags.

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Kings Creek Falls Lassen | Best California Parks

Kings Creek Falls is a 30ft waterfall located in Lassen Volcanic National Park that is part of a scenic 2 mile hike.

Where to Stay at Lassen

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Channel Islands National Park (courtesy NPS) | California’s National Parks

8. Channel Islands National Park

Location: Southern California

Score: 31

  • Accessibility – 4/10
  • Recreation – 6.5/10
  • Crowds – 9/10
  • Amenities – 3.5/10
  • Scenery – 8/10

About Channel Islands

Deemed “the American Galapagos”, Channel Islands feature an unbelievable amount of biodiversity. Located just off the coast of Southern California, this eight island chain is another bucket-lister for park-lovers. 

Getting to the islands themselves presents a bit of difficulty as visitors have to take a ferry and usually make reservations well in advance. Once arriving to the islands activities including hiking, kayaking, diving, and relaxing. Amenities are a bit limited so make sure to pack water and food for your trip.

Channel Islands Highlights

channel islands national park california ferry ride
Channel Islands Ferry (courtesy NPS) | California’s National Parks

The Ferry Ride to the Channel Islands from mainland California is one of the coolest parts of the adventure. The ride itself is about 1 hour each way and costs about $65 per person for a round trip ticket.

channel islands national park california
Inspiration Point Channel Islands (courtesy NPS) | National Parks California

Inspiration Point Trail is a short trail that features a breathtaking overlook on Anacapa Island.

pinnacles national park california
Pinnacles National Park California (courtesy NPS) | California National Parks

9. Pinnacles National Park

Location: Central California

Score: 29

  • Accessibility – 6.5/10
  • Recreation – 6/10
  • Crowds – 8/10
  • Amenities – 3/10
  • Scenery – 5.5/10

About Pinnacles National Park

The most recent addition of the California National Parks is a beauty featuring some lovely dry mountain scenery, caves exploration, condor viewing, and lots of great rock climbing opportunities.

With that being said, hiking is the main activity in the park and there’s plenty of it. A great time to check out the park is in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming.

Pinnacles Highlights

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Bear Gulch Cave Trail | Best California National Parks

Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a beautiful hiking trail and cave tour that winds through narrow canyons and has a creek running through it.

Map of California’s National Parks

See below map with the locations of all nine of California’s National Parks.

List of California National Parks (ranked from best to worst)

  1. Yosemite National Park
  2. Redwood National Park
  3. Sequoia National Park
  4. Death Valley National Park
  5. Joshua Tree National Park
  6. Kings Canyon National Park
  7. Lassen Volcanic National Park
  8. Channel Islands National Park
  9. Pinnacles National Park

See Our Full National Park Rankings

We actually ranked ALL 63 National Parks from best to worst using the same point system featured in this article here. Curious to see how California’s parks stack up against the rest of the parks nationwide? Click here!

The Latest from More Than Just Parks

Catch up on all the latest posts from the crew at More Than Just Parks.

Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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